Meet the new management team

BBH: when Alex met Karen

BBH's global chief creative officer Alex Grieve and London chief executive Karen Martin talk about their new partnership - as well as Alex's beautiful hair

By Jeremy Lee

In April, Alex Grieve left Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to join BBH as its global chief creative officer - a role filled by a handful of predecessors, including Sir John Hegarty.

He also took on responsibility for BBH London, which constitutes the main chunk of the agency's revenue and output. His focus, he says, will largely be on working alongside BBH London's ECD Helen Rhodes and its chief executive Karen Martin. And already, the agency has produced some particularly memorable work for Ribena.

Alex has worked at BBH before, of course. The agency he returns to now (in its fortieth year) is a very different one to any previous iteration, with a largely new management team led by Karen who stepped up to the CEO role in June 2020. The other members of the team are freshly minted MD Holly Ripper, joint chief strategy officers Simon Gregory and Will Lion and chief production officer Stephen Ledger-Lomas.

The agency, then, has been through a lot of change in recent years. We caught up with Alex and Karen in Sir Nigel Bogle's old office, which is now Karen's demesne, to talk about the agency's new look line-up and where they want to take the shop next.

Why did you take the job, Alex? Given that you are currently the world's most awarded creative, what were you looking for next in your career?

I wasn't looking for 'next in my career' - I tend NOT to look too far ahead - life happens while you're making plans as John Lennon famously said. And I was very happy at AMV. I'd helped build an amazing dept and, together, we'd achieved some pretty special things. And I worked with people I loved. But I was, perhaps without realising, restless - I'd been there 10 years and the two years of the pandemic had been brutally hard on AMV so I had scars from that. When I heard that BBH might be interested my first reaction was to think No. I'd been there before, for a long time (14 years) and I don't really believe in going back. But I was intrigued so I started to meet people. And the more people I met, the more excited I became.

Karen IS a world-class CEO, has an irreverent, self-deprecating sense of humour and a big heart. From the moment I met her I liked her enormously and could see myself not only working with her but learning from her as well - that's important - I always believe that the moment you think you've made it, is actually the moment you're done. I was also hugely impressed by Annette King - she genuinely wants nothing more than for BBH to become a creative powerhouse. And again, yes she is tough and takes no shit but she's also straight-talking, smart, humble and a really good laugh. Having her in my corner seemed a very, very good thing. And without this descending into a sycophantic Oscar thank you speech I was blown away by the leadership team:

Will and Simon are two of the smartest and kindest Strats I've worked with (and I've worked with the very best), Stephen Ledger-Lomas is a craft obsessive and lovely man to boot, Holly Ripper is a dynamic, go get 'em MD and my partner in crime, Helen Rhodes is quirky, a bit wild, warm, has truly great creative instincts and the department and agency love her. And the chance to expand my skillsets and learn (again) from some exceptional talent with the global demands of my new role was enticing. In short it proves you don't really join an agency, you join a group of people you believe you can do something special with. And I believe we CAN and WILL do that.

What's your shared creative vision?

There's a lot of nonsense written about creative visions. What's far more important is to have a plan. It's about the Mission, not the Mission Statement. Plus, thank God, BBH has a very clearly defined, long-standing Creative Vision: The Power of Difference to make a Difference. So, no need to spend days and days in workshops self-indulging in mental masturbation to formulate a set of words that give the illusion of a vision. No, we can, instead, get on with sustaining the amazing momentum at BBH - pitch wins for Barclaycard, Netflix, Ribena and five 'Ad of the Days' for our last five pieces of work - there's a real buzz in the agency.

To sustain that momentum our job is to create the conditions for everyone here to do the best work of their lives. And the way we do that is by our people having the best time of their lives. As Helen says if you're having fun, you tend to do great work - it's really not rocket science. This is a hugely exciting time for BBH. When I look back on my career the most fulfilling, energising and fun time was the three years right after Adrian [Rossi] and I were appointed ECDs at AMV. We were climbing the mountain and when, finally, we got near the top it was incredible. The five years after, staying at the top, were also incredible but in a different way: the pressure to remain at the summit and the relentlessness of it is draining; the weight never lifts off your shoulders. I believe BBH is climbing the mountain.

The industry is looking at BBH and sensing that something is happening and for Karen and I and the leadership team to be the Sherpas leading the agency back to the summit is hugely invigorating and something I feel very proud to be a part of.

Ben Fennell, Karen's predecessor as BBH CEO often talked about the agency being "in or out of the garage". Where do you think it is now?

Not entirely sure what this means. We assume it means - are you getting your hands dirty? Are you fixing the engine or telling people how to fix it?

The answer is you have to be both in and out. But, primarily, out. We believe in autonomy. There's a great quote from Pixar that says, "we start from the presumption that, without meaning to, the company impedes the creative process. Our job is to fix that and then get out of the way".

The way to fix it is to create small, empowered teams. Because small, empowered teams get shit done. Give a problem to such a team and they will either fix it or come up with something better. We all thrive when we are given autonomy; when we are trusted to deliver. And, counter intuitively, teams granted autonomy also become more open to feedback and and challenge. They understand asking for help is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

Is BBH's heritage a booster or a burden? Which parts of the DNA do you retain?

Heritage can suffocate or liberate; lead to fear or glory. The trick is you have to choose. John [Hegarty] and Nigel [Bogle] were Masters of their Art: hugely charismatic, persuasive and yes, demanding. The word is over-used but they were geniuses. But underneath John and Nigel were Jim Carroll, Gwyn Jones, Ben Fennell, Derek Robson, Nick Kendall, Pep [Jon Peppiatt], Charlie Rudd, John O'Keeffe, Nick Gill, Frances Royle, Dav [Davud Karbassioun] - I could literally go on and on and on. The weight of that legacy and intellect and drive could make some shrivel and doubt themselves - how could you ever live up what they achieved?

Perhaps the advantage I have is that I've worked with all these people and I know (because I've spoken to them) they want us and BBH to succeed. They want us, as a new leadership team, not to defend but to attack.

Our job is not to carry the torch of BBH past but to build new fires and create our own legacy. The primary lesson I take from John and Nigel is that you have to back yourself. They always did that. They had an absolute certainty their way was the right way. That confidence is infectious and advertising is a confidence game. Also, if you look carefully the lessons they left us are all there. Practices may change, principles stay the same: all roads lead to the work.

And Karen, why did you want to work with Alex?

Because of his beautiful hair and impeccable taste in trainers. And, because he's been there and done it. He's one of the most decorated creative leaders in the world, he has charm, warmth and generosity in bags and we have a shared belief in building a 'culture of kindness'. I truly believe the best for BBH is yet to come - as a leadership team, we're just getting going, with Alex joining plus Holly and Stephen's promotions this year and Helen joining from BBC Creative last year. And creatively, it feels like we're firing on all cylinders again. We've won Ribena, Netflix and Barclaycard, and we're creating work that feels like it's actually delivering the power of difference - like creating a kink loving polar bear protagonist for an eco-deodorant.

We're having fun and this job and this industry is meant to be fun. If we're not entertaining people, if we're not making people feel something - then what's the point? We have to be confident in our ability to do that. Alex brings that confidence to the agency and more than that - he inspires that confidence in the creative department and teams he works with. He wants to set the stage for everyone to do the best work of their careers at BBH and you can't ask for more than that.


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